ISIS in Libya: Retreating or advancing in another direction?
The Islamic State (ISIS) is in retreat from Libya’s strategic central port city of Sirte but this is a rather orderly retreat in the face of forces loyal to the UN-backed Presidential Council headed by Fayez al-Sarraj and backed by US air strikes. The questions are: What does the future hold for Libya? And what will ISIS do?
By taking control of Sirte, the Presidential Council is seeking to extend its political legitimacy towards eastern Libya. The country has been fragmented among different governments and various military, militia and terrorist forces since the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. The Presidential Council is seeking to prove its mettle and demonstrate that it is the legitimate authority in the North African oil- and gas-producing country.
Since legitimacy in the Arab world appears to come at the barrel of a gun, not from the will of the people or the ballot box, then it is military might and territorial control that are the deciding factors. The irony is that the Arab political, cultural and media elite have been inspired by the idea that whoever is in control of the capital, and other strategic areas, is the legitimate power, regardless of the will of the people, respect for the country’s culture and traditions, its democratic foundations or political norms. However, it is from these vital principles, not force of arms, where true legitimacy comes from.
So real political legitimacy in Libya must, therefore, be based on the parliamentary elections of 2014, not military force or territorial control. Sarraj’s troops have every right to celebrate the retreat of ISIS from Sirte but it is important to note that ISIS has retreated and not been defeated. This terrorist group remains a force, albeit a scattered one, and a threat to Libya and its neighbours. The threat of the group’s dangerous ideology to recruit new members and inspire attacks remains.
It is also clear that ISIS’s withdrawal from Sirte came thanks to Western intervention, with European special forces on the ground in Libya and US air strikes playing a decisive factor in the battle for the city.
Europe is footing an expensive bill to keep ISIS from its shores but its actions are out of self-interest, not due to any real concern for Libya. Europe wants to ensure that ISIS is not able to infiltrate the continent and if the group retreats towards the Libyan interior, the Europeans will not pursue ISIS there.
Europe is entering the conflict management stage of its fight against ISIS and it is prepared to give up certain things to safeguard more strategic interests, such as control of the vital energy corridors, including Libya. European countries are fighting against ISIS but this is a fight with many different fronts and they must prioritise some battles over others.
ISIS is in retreat from Sirte but that only means its fighters are advancing in another direction, to Libya’s border regions and towards Niger, Algeria and Tunisia. ISIS could move to target US forces in Senegal, via Niger and Mali. It could look to exploit the situation in Algeria, particularly the issue of the restive ethnic Tuaregs in the south or it could carry out more terrorist attacks in Tunisia.
Yes, ISIS might be in retreat in Libya but that only means it is advancing in a different direction.